Most of my mainland friends have never heard of poke, and when I tell them what it is, they give me bewildered looks. “It sounds Japanese,” they say. When I respond that it’s Hawaiian, they look at me askance and ask if I’m sure it’s not Japanese. “I’m sure,” I reply, knowing there’s little chance of introducing them to this signature Hawaiian dish unless they hop on a plane and fly here.
How is that sushi has made inroads into nearly every corner of the country, available in such unlikely places as rural Midwestern convenience stores, whereas poke, from a state that welcomes nearly eight million annual visitors, largely remains unknown? Poke marries with other ingredients in more varying, interesting, and successful ways than raw fish by itself ever could.
Poke, described by some as a “fish salad,” is popularly conceptualized as cubed fish mixed with Hawaiian salt, chili pepper, and limu (a crunchy, edible Hawaiian seaweed). Its origins can also be traced back centuries, and represents an important ingredient to native Hawaiian identity. In the words of Justin Tanioka, General Manager of Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering, “Poke is a continuation of the past, a continuation of a Hawaiian food tradition.” Many visitors to Hawaii compare it with sashimi (“raw fish” in Japanese), but I find the comparison off target. Poke, which can also be seared, cooked, or even made from meat and vegetables, is a completely different eating experience from sashimi.
An ingredients list for poke sometimes reads to me, a relative newcomer to Hawaii, like a field guide to the Islands. Here’s a quick rundown of some common Hawaiian words you may encounter when shopping for poke: ahi (yellowfin tuna), aku (skip jack tuna), a’u (marlin), ‘inamona (roasted, pulverized kukui nuts mixed with sea salt), limu kohu (a red, spicy seaweed), limu manauea (a red-green seaweed with a mild taste), ‘opihi (limpets), and pa’akai (sea salt used in traditional food preparation and for flavoring).
One of poke’s biggest enthusiasts is world-renowned chef Sam Choy. Choy has been instrumental in popularizing Island cuisine, and even hosts the Sam Choy Poke Contest, which attracts scores of entrants, hundreds of attendees, and publicity from all over the world. Despite his and others’ efforts, however, poke remains little known outside Hawaii.
Oahu’s best-known poke seller is Tamashiro Market, which has become a local institution since moving into its current salmon-colored building (and hanging a giant, plastic red crab twenty feet above its entrance) in 1962. Located in Kalihi, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood once famed for its many fishponds, Tamashiro Market specializes in fresh fish. A counter inside offers more than thirty kinds of poke, while its owner, Guy Tamashiro, creates new ones all the time. One of his latest creations, the Ahi Seaweed Supreme, is a laboriously constructed bricolage of dehydrated limu, deep-fried wonton strips, nori (dried Japanese seaweed), and a sauce made from twenty different ingredients.
One of my all-time favorites here is Surf Clam Poke. For me, the slightly sweet sauce and three distinct crunches, from the sliced Maui onions, green and bell peppers, and firm, lightly cooked meat of the clams, make the dish. Their most surprising poke is a Tahitian-inspired dish called Oka Poke: Pacific blue marlin marinated in coconut milk, with chopped tomato, onions, and crunchy cucumber wafers.
When I crave smoked, dried, or cured flavors, I head to Tanioka’s in Waipahu and jostle with multiethnic throngs of grannies and high school kids to place my order. My three favorite poke here are Pipikaula Poke (russety strips of Hawaiian salt-cured beef), Smoked Salmon Poke (fishy, oniony, and delicately smoky) and Dried Ahi Poke (luxuriously dark niblets of yellowfin tuna). These briny morsels are washed down perfectly with a tall cold one, or, as my mood sometimes dictates, chilled sake.
Just down the road from Tanioka’s, Poke Stop offers what could fairly be called Oahu’s most innovative poke. Owned and operated by Elmer Guzman, former executive chef at Sam Choy’s and author of The Shoreline Chef, Poke Stop expands on traditional poke recipes by applying gourmet concepts to it.
“Poke must have certain elements,” Guzman explains. “The most basic version uses salt, kukui nuts, and ogo (limu manauea). That was all the ancients had available for their poke. Nowadays you can use anything – as long as it makes sense.” Guzman’s Blackened Ahi, Tofu, Ginger Scallion Shrimp, and Kapakahi were the most memorable poke dishes of a recent Poke Stop feast. The Kapakahi Poke won me over, though, with its sweet, marbly hunks of ahi and creamy, faintly bitter limpets.
There’s a richness to poke that lingers after eating. This comes from the fat of the fish as well as the marinade, which is typically made from sesame oil. When combined with Hawaiian sea salt, the mix can render poke quite savory. The other day, my wife and I tried ten kinds of poke at Tamashiro Market. With steamed rice and some okra that we boiled at home, our poke dinner was satisfyingly filling and cost less than eighteen dollars. What’s more, we had enough leftover for lunch the next day.
“Everything has to be consistent,” Justin Tanioka said when I asked if there’s a secret to making good poke. “Obviously, the quality and freshness of your ingredients is key. Different fish also have different flavors, and even the same kind of fish doesn’t always taste the same. So you have to be aware of what you’re using and how your ingredients can complement it.”
For a nutritious, filling snack, poke is a low-fat, high-protein option. Ahi and aku, the most popular fish used in poke, are great sources of Vitamin B12, Iron, Magnesium, Niacin, and Selenium, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A four-ounce serving of either tuna variety measures in at less than 200 calories. While poke tends to be salty, salt is what draws much of the flavor onto the fish.
Poke remains inexpensive despite its popularity and the innovations that have changed how people think of it. One reason for this is that poke traditionally uses “economy” cuts of fish, minus the sinew. Back when he was a boy, Guzman most often ate poke made from akule (big-eye scad) – “poor man’s poke,” he says, “that my father made at home.” Now, by filleting it, dicing it up with shoyu, sesame oil, and chili flakes, he’s made akule a big-seller. Guzman admits that his modern take on poke didn’t work at first. “But once people understood what I was doing,” he says, “using higher-end ingredients and innovating on old ideas, they really went for it.”
Eating poke is like nibbling on the ocean itself. That's another difference between poke and sashimi: poke brings the taste of the ocean more intensely onto your plate. And the taste, as Justin Tanioka explained, is hardly uniform. The contrasts between, say, ahi onion poke, blackened ahi poke, and dried ahi poke will make you think that you’re eating completely different fish.
“For me,” Guy Tamashiro says, “one of life’s great joys is eating. I don’t ever want to lose my sense of taste. I’ve been eating poke since I was a kid and don’t want to give it up now. I just couldn’t live like that.”
When I ask why people who have never had poke should give it a try, he sighs as if he knows about my food-challenged friends. “Any food is worth trying at least once,” he says. “And you should do it for yourself because, who knows, you may discover a favorite dish. New textures, new tastes, new combinations of different ingredients. You should never be afraid to try something new. That’s what life’s all about.”
And that’s what I discover all the time in Hawaii. With such a magnificent blend of cultures, one’s food choices here are more varied than just about anywhere else in the world. Newcomers to Hawaii should not view poke as a dangerous leap into the unknown. For those who arrive with an interest in Island culture, it offers an easy and exciting entrée into what feeds it.
Where to get poke in Oahu:
Tamashiro Market: You’ll find over thirty kinds of poke here along with everything you need to make your own. Excellent quality and very affordable. 802 N. King Street. (808) 841-8047.
Poke Stop: Like the name says, a great place to stop for some of Hawaii’s best poke. A little off the beaten track, but well within reach if you find yourself at Pearl Harbor or bargain-shopping at the Waikele Outlet Mall. 94-050 Farrington Highway, Waipahu Town Center. (808) 676-8100. (www.elmerguzman.com)
Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering: Anyone in Hawaii will assure you that quantity does not take precedence over freshness and quality here. While a bit far from Honolulu, it’s just up the road from Poke Stop. 94-903 Farrington Highway, Waipahu. (808) 671-3779. (www.taniokas.com)
House Without a Key (Halekalani Hotel): Although expensive, you can get a scrumptious Island Style Ahi Poke “Martini” ($18) served on a bed of shiso (perilla) leaves and garnished with lumi, sesame seeds, chopped green onions, and radish sprouts wrapped in pickled ginger. The oceanside seating makes for a perfect place to savor your poke as the sun sets and live Hawaiian music takes the stage beneath an ancient Kiawe tree. 2199 Kalia Road, Waikiki. (808) 923-2311. (www.halekulani.com)